Spoiler alert: The following article discusses Sunday's "Game of Thrones" season premiere, "Dragonstone." If you haven't watched the episode, stop reading now.
Whenever a complicated tale lays fallow for a time, its return tends to be marked with a surveying of the field and a bit of throat clearing, some slow patting of pockets and looking around to figure out where we’ve left our glasses. Only after we regain our bearings can we settle into the action again. So: “Shall we begin?”
“Dragonstone,” the seventh season premiere of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” felt a lot like that, as executive producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff jogged our collective memories by catching us up on the remaining Starks, Lannisters, Greyjoys and, at the end of the episode, the last Targaryen. More than a year has passed between the season 6 finale, "The Winds of Winter," and Sunday night’s resumption, which marks the beginning of the series’ end. And wrapping up all of the stories in this sprawling epic is going to be a ponderous task.
There are enough remaining players to merit a moment to catch our collective breath and recall, in detail, where everyone has landed and what they’re up to. Weiss and Benioff’s script juggled a number of these main and secondary plots with aplomb, even allowing for a few entertaining surprises along the way.
To our relief Bran Stark and Meera Reed finally make it south of the Wall, granted passage by Dolorous Edd. The episode checks in with Brienne of Tarth and her relationship with the besotted wildling Tormund Giantsbane — it’s complicated! Arya comes across a cadre of friendly, likable Lannister soldiers that includes singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran. Why is he there? Who knows? Jim Broadbent makes his debut as an archmaester, and frustrates and helps Samwell Tarly at the same time, mostly by assuring him that winter comes and goes, but the Citadel is forever.
And what a delight it was to watch brash, trashy Euron Greyjoy attempt to win Cersei’s hand by riding up with an armada of ships and braggadocio, the Westerosi equivalent of 2 Chainz stepping up to a Daughter of the American Revolution with a fleet of muscle cars. No small thing, but not good enough — and Euron knew it, so he took the opportunity to score a few verbal jabs at Jaime's expense as he strutted out.
All of this came after the coldest of cold opens — we’re talking icy, gangster-level frigidity — in the form of Arya Stark wiping out the entire Frey clan with a few sips of Arbor Gold wine.
Justice? Sure. Mass murder? Indubitably. The writers even spike the scene with Arya’s version of Omar Little’s famous “You come at the king, you best not miss” line on "The Wire": “Leave one wolf alive,” she tells the roomful of retching Freys while wearing the face of their traitorous paterfamilias Walder, “and the sheep are never safe.”
"Dragonstone" delivers heavily on fan service even as it shortchanges with regard to primary plots. Some of that is warranted; the hype leading up to this new season included so many teasers about the increasing prickliness between Jon Snow and Sansa Stark that seeing them bicker was hardly surprising. Nor, for that matter, is the chill existing between Cersei and Jaime in King’s Landing, the former so obsessed with securing a dynasty that she can’t comprehend that she’s surrounded by enemies, geographically and politically. Jaime points this out to her as they stand on a gigantic map of the Seven Kingdoms that Cersei is having a resentful looking man paint on the floor. The irony in that moment outweighs the whole damn throne, and it's delicious.
Nevertheless, "Dragonstone" didn't take the audience to any new places. That's fine, I guess, since there are only six episodes remaining in this season. The producers probably have a mandate to milk as much suspense out of the story as possible. Besides, it's not as if we have a new book from George R. R. Martin to turn to, right? Weiss and Benioff have hardcore Throneys by the tenders here.
Nevertheless, the joy at seeing familiar faces again is undeniable. The settings haven't changed much since last season, and it's not particularly obvious how much time has passed. How long does it take for a fleet of ships and dragons to cross the Narrow Sea? (And while we're asking, how did Daenerys manage to score weather appropriate couture for herself and her entourage during that trip?)
Whatever the answer is, the Sansa who has returned to Winterfell at last isn't the innocent who loves lemon cakes and harbors fantasies of happily ever after. Winter has come. Winterfell has transformed into a barracks filled with soldiers training for war, and Sansa is keen on employing ruthless strategies she learned from Cersei the hard way. To her, power must be wielded to intimidate and enact justice. Jon believes the sensible ruler survives.
And Winterfell is Jon’s new Castle Black, a notion director Jeremy Podeswa plays with by shooting all the Northerner gatherings in low-lighting and calling forth the striking grays and onyx lines of the architecture — a very different place from the opulent south, where ignorance and arrogance appear to be intoxicant of choice. Podeswa films the setting of Dragonstone on a clear sunny day, accentuating both the majesty and the forbidding nature of Daenerys Targaryen’s birthplace and stylistically highlighting a sense of her divine right to rule. As Sam discovers in a forbidden tome he secretly acquires, the Targaryen stronghold holds a trove of obsidian, the greatest weapon Westeros has in the coming war with the Night King.
Even when an episode feels slower-paced than others, as this one does, Weiss’s and Benioff’s plot structuring keeps the action moving. And subplots circle back on themselves, with purpose. In "Dragonstone" this manifests in a sequence featuring Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound, and his travels with Ser Beric Dondarrion, Thoros the Red Priest and the Brotherhood Without Banners.
Whether this passage works depends on a person's feelings about The Hound, a bitter character who meets the harshness of the world by hitting back harder, but hides a sensitive soul under all the scar tissue on his face. In an earlier season the Hound robs a farmer and his young daughter of their hard-earned silver, acknowledging cavalierly that he’s doomed the peasants in doing so.
In “Dragonstone” the Hound and his companions happen across that same farm to take shelter once again, only to discover the wasted away husks of his previous hosts, proving he was right. Several redemption stories are playing out in the drama’s endgame; this one allows the Hound to question the existence of destiny. “There’s no divine justice, you dumb c--t,” he tells Dondarrion, a warrior raised from the dead many times, allegedly to serve the Lord of Light. “If there was you’d be dead, and that girl would be alive.” In the middle of the night the Hound buries the hosts he wronged, barely finding the words for a decent prayer in doing so, but managing to come up with an apology that feels more meaningful.
This insightful interlude is a reminder of why the side characters in "Game of Thrones" matter just as much as the major ones. The Hound and his victims represent different aspects of the collateral damage caused by the never-ending animus between the great houses. This war destroys the mighty, the meek and everything in between. And it was one of two surprising and welcome tonal shifts that the writers achieved in this episode, the second being a comical montage of Sam’s horrid life at The Citadel, a shuffle of shots showing Sam cleaning chamber pots and reshelving books again and again."Game of Thrones" needs more such humor and humanity, and Sam's lot and his perseverance provides both.
Season openers and finales always contain at least one sequence designed to take our breath away, and in "Dragonstone" Benioff and Weiss saved that passage for the final minutes, as Daenerys Targaryen and her cortège of loyalists solemnly land on the beach of her ancestral home. Together Dany, Tyrion Lannister, Missandei and Grey Worm climb the long snaking stairs to the castle, open the gates and enter the house last held by Stannis Baratheon. Soon after the Dragon Queen strolls beside the carved tabletop map Stannis used to plan his failed campaigns, stroking it with her delicate fingers.
Every mute dramatic weight in this scene is conveyed without dialogue, only actions that underscores the sacredness of that moment to Daenerys, her companions and viewers who missed them. The line referenced above is the only one any utters during that entire sequence, and it says it all.
“Shall we begin?” says the Mother Dragons. Presumably the show will do so in earnest, starting with the season's second episode.